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How to Get a Driver’s License in Japan Without Speaking Japanese

Tips on the process and English-speaking driving schools.

By 6 min read

I’ll be honest, the thought of driving a car absolutely terrifies me. Since I have chosen to make a rural place like Nagano Prefecture my home, however, life would be a whole lot easier if I had a car. Walking 40 kilometers a week to and from work is getting a bit tiresome, to say the least.

My Japanese is conversational, though I’m by no means fluent. So, when it comes to official business like contract negotiations, legal issues, or getting a car on the road, I still prefer to fall back on my native English.

Like most things in Japan, getting your license is complicated, expensive, and involves a whole lot of paperwork.

This presents a problem for me in learning to drive. Yes, there are several driving schools available, and there’s even one about 10 minutes’ walk from my house. Unfortunately, nobody on their staff speaks any English, nor do they offer any information in English.

It quickly became clear to me that learning to drive in Nagano was not an option unless I could somehow drastically raise my level of reading and writing in Japanese. Before finding the proper English-speaking driving school (which I’ll list at the end of this article), here’s the process you’re in for if you decide to get your Japanese driver’s license.

Process of getting your Japanese driver’s license

This could all be yours.

Like most things in Japan, getting your license is complicated, expensive, and involves a whole lot of paperwork. If you already have a license back home, the process is much easier, although still annoying. We’ll look at both circumstances and you can use the links below to jump to the section that applies to you.

I already have a license in my home country

I don’t already have a license in my home country

If you don’t already have a license in your home country

“When you can take the car from my hand, it will be time for you to drive.”

There are basically four steps to getting your Japanese driver’s license.

Step one: Get a learner’s permit

This requires that you pass a written multiple-choice question test on road safety and Japanese driving laws. You’ll need to score at least 45 out of 50 to pass. Next, you’ll need to pass a practical driving course at an accredited driving school on one of their on-site courses.

Once you obtain the permit, you will be able to move beyond the driving school and do practical lessons out on public roads. In a functional sense, this is essentially the same as the provisional licensing system used in the UK.

Step two: Take even more driving courses

You will then need to attend further classes, both practical and classroom-based, to prepare for your final written and driving exams. You can take as many lessons as you wish. The only caveat is that if you don’t upgrade your learner’s permit to a full license within six months, you will need to go through the process for obtaining the learner’s permit again.

Before you take the final test, you will also need to take a certified first aid course. You’ll need to have at least five sessions of practical driving practice on public roads under your belt within the past three months to be eligible for the final test.

We told you it was complicated!

Step three: Take the final written test

Next, you have a beefed-up version of the written test. This time there are 95 questions in total. Ninety of them are multiple-choice and follow a similar format to the learner’s permit written test. The final five questions are illustration-based and worth two points each. There is little margin for error, with the pass mark set at 95 out of 100 possible points.

Step four: Take the actual driving test (finally)

With that out of the way and several hours of practical and theoretical training under your belt, you are ready to face the final challenge—the driving test itself. We’ll talk more about this in the next section.

If you already have a license in your home country

“It looked green to me!”

Those in this category don’t need to take any actual driving courses or worry about getting a learner’s permit. What’s important is the 10 question written test and the practical driving test, which is the same for those without a license from their home country.

The problem, however, is that the “practical” driving test is so counterintuitive to how you’re likely used to driving. It’s more like “prove how well you can pass this test” than “prove how well you can drive.”

On average, it takes non-Japanese three or four attempts to pass this test, so don’t worry if you don’t get it right the first time!

For example, you have to demonstrate that you can stay 70 centimeters from the curb at all times and drive through a narrow “S curve” that’s shaped more like a cartoon snake than an actual road. On average, it takes non-Japanese three or four attempts to pass this test, so don’t worry if you don’t get it right the first time!

My best advice? Be prepared. Go to a driving school and ask them to let you practice the test on their driving course with an instructor a few times before taking the real thing.

Some of the driving schools recommended below offer free or discounted follow up lessons if you don’t pass the first time.

English-speaking driving schools

Here are four driving schools in Japan for English speakers. Keep in mind you may have to travel a bit.

  • Kodama Driving School

This school, with branches across Tokyo and Yokohama, seems to have the best reputation online when it comes to their English driving course. However, they’re also by far the most expensive at ¥396,000 for an automatic transmission driving course and ¥410,000 for a manual one.

  • Chubu Nippon Driving School

The Chubu Nippon School in Nagoya may be an option for those of you living in central Japan. It’s a bit cheaper than Kodama at ¥353,000 for automatic and ¥369,000 for manual. The school is also backed by the Toyota Motor Company if that gives you extra peace of mind.

  • EDS Driving School

This next school, based in Tokyo and Saitama, is one of the few that offers different pricing plans according to the needs of the student. Some people learn faster than others, and if you think you can get by with a few hours less than the standard course, their budget automatic transmission plan at only ¥176,000 could be for you.

  • Okui Driving School

Okui Driving School in Saitama offers the lowest price of the four schools. Their budget beginner’s course comes in at only ¥120,000. If you prefer an intensive course aimed at getting your license in two weeks, then they also offer a “VIP” plan for ¥400,000.

As for me, I’m taking this time to study up for the theory test. Health and finances permitting, hopefully, I’ll finally be on the road later this year. 

Good luck, everyone, and drive safely.

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